Paul D. Meartz, Ph.D.
At the 1992 Republican Party Convention, Patrick Buchanan said that, "There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself” [Buchanan]. Through saying this he is credited with labeling the cultural fight in America as the “Culture Wars” [Williams 2003: 10]. The term describes a multitude of squabbles within the American community generally dealing with deeply personal issues such as control of the body and life. The sides basically divide over the traditional pathways following from Judeo-Christian history and ethics and those implied by the separation of church and state and the freedom from religious rules. The sides can be simplified into the conservative right and the liberal left, but they are often more complex.
America is not the first society to fight over such activities and positions. The original use of the term is actually German [Infoplease]. It dates to the 1870s. Kulturkampf began when the Roman Catholic Church determined the Pope to be infallible in 1870. German leadership saw this as an attempt to diminish the power of the state in southern Germany. Various laws were enacted to limit the power of the church in an attempt to bolster the much newer German state. The question was who controlled Germany: the state or the church.
Thus in postmodern America we have a cultural battle as to who controls the bodies, ethics, and morals of the American people. Does the conservative, general society have that power through their long-standing cultural sentiments; or do the minorities through expansion of the separation of church and state principle and the Bill of Rights?
American has always been a place of social unrest. While our elementary teachers often picture America as a place of peaceful cooperation, in the hope that we will join that pathway, American history is often a rocky road. My third-grade teacher praised the efforts of the early Spanish missionaries and explorers in South America. Their expeditions and movements were to bring something great and new to the native community. Left unsaid in the 1950s was the damage that such actions brought. Left unsaid was the personal damage of slavery and murder committed upon the native community. The Spanish even considered whether the natives were human beings or not until Bartoleme de Las Casas said that the natives indeed were, but more like children in an attempt to ease their strife. We start with idealism, but later face reality [Sendrey]. For America, what does that reality look like; some examples follow.
- Colonial Fighting. The colonies were characterized by infighting. Early Americans already brought their neighbors to court more than the Europeans. North Carolina had an East-West fight before the Revolution. A full third of the population opposed the Revolution. Some became the base population of Ontario, Canada after the war.
- Distrust. The underlying theme of the Constitution is distrust. While that document unified and made possible America, it was written under the assumption that government would be used to exploit people unless carefully restrained. This explains why most parliamentary systems have five-year terms, while our House has only two years. The Electoral College works under the assumption that average Americans might not know how properly to elect a president. It goes on.
- Slavery. Slavery and the Civil War, perhaps, epitomize this issue. The Constitution contained a prohibition, conceived in compromise, that no discussion of changing the status of slaves and slavery with in United States would take place until 1808. This was listed in Article I, section 9, clause 1 of the Constitution. This putting off dealing with the humanitarian issue points to an inability even to see the nation getting underway if it had to deal with a real solution to this issue. In a sense they were right because only the Civil War brought the solution. As we bring this issue forward in time, the Civil Rights Movement, starting in 1954, and its opponents brought a serious internal fight over such a set of basic rights. As the prime period for development of the current cultural wars will be the 1960s, the prominence of the Civil Rights Movement in life and media will obviously play a central role in showing particularly young Americans that something was amiss. The Senate has a six-year term so they can resist change.
- Money. While we grow up being told that government is based on high ideals, I recall my high school history teacher’s proviso to “…always look for the money” when you were looking at American History. One finds that our higher values almost always succumb to the money factor. The high-level talk from Washington cloaks the underlying movement of money.
Thus, to say that infighting in America is something new is to ignore the nature of our history. America has been a place of strife. While the search for compromise is often lauded, it is a sign that there are underlying disagreements that require special efforts to solve.
Postmodern Culture War begins in the 1960s
The postmodern cultural fight in America dates to the shift in cultural focus during the 1960s. That focus, in turn, is based on developments during the 1930s-1950s. Essentially, the generation going through the desperation of the Depression and World War II sought a calmer life of brighter prospects during the 1950s. Out of the great promise of the peaceful 1950s, the Baby Boom generation grew up under conditions of peace and hope.
To many, “Leave It to Beaver” epitomized the 1950s and the early 1960s. Beaver had a calm life in which there were only the so-called problems of normal growing up. The truth is that Beaver lives in a world that is without the outside pressures of economic depression and war. He was the model of what life should be in America. Children should not have to face the toughness of life. It should be a time of ease.
In the 1960s, the world and the media caught up with the new generation. While television continued its level of pleasantness, the news segments provided growing images of trouble in paradise. The new generation will be influenced by the contrast between this peacefulness and the growing pressures of reality. The major events were the assassination of President John Kennedy, followed by the growth of the Vietnam War’s presence in daily and media life. With these two the media battles to maintain its level of pleasantness, but succumbed to the pressure by mid-decade. Heroes turned into anti-heroes. Beaver’s problems seemed miniscule.
The assassination is the crucial event, but not by itself. The assassination was surrounded by the Cuban Missile Crisis, fear of the “bomb,” and the media changes. Many boomers saw parents rush them off to view what a basement bomb shelter looked like and engage in talk about whether it was worth it to get one. Bullwinkle and Rocky faced the evil Boris and Natasha; clear symbols of the danger that no longer was on the far side of the earth. It was your house in the crosshairs. In all of this, there is good reason why most boomers know exactly where they were when they heard the news about Kennedy; it was a universally shared traumatic event. This shared trauma was a known experience to their parents, but not to the boomers. The spell of the 1950s was broken.
Kennedy’s youthful approach to life and the nation was catching for boomers. They embraced it. The “First Family” record album swept the nation and made JFK and the family intimate and approachable. Now facing the reality of death, a sense of loss replaced that hope. The idealism, however, did not die. It was transformed. Gone was the rosy picture that there was nothing to change. In its place was the promise of the 1950s in the hands of high school and college age Boomers who felt empowered to create the ideal they thought had been promised. They expected better and set out to get it.
The buildup of the Vietnam War followed. With the earlier boomers in high school and college, the promises of the 1950s seem off somewhat. The promises of a better world with peace, lightness, honesty, democracy, and other wonderful things were not in the cards. The disillusionment was quiet, but widespread. One impact of those promises could not be denied. That was the idealism that they created. That idealism had been dril.ed into a generation. They felt empowered by it, and would use it to bring cultural challenge and change. The whole 1960s movement was based on a belief that change could take place and it would be good. The war became the focus for that sense of change. To change the war meant mounting a full frontal attack on the old world.
Nevertheless, the war went on. Its main stretch was from 1964 to 1973. That was a long time for Americans to watch the carnage. This idealism of the 1950s gave way to the anti-war movement of the 1960s. The 1950s zealousness with possessions brought the hippie movement. The movement tore the clothes off any cover the establishment offered. The war was for democracy until no one in Vietnam could be found who favored democracy. The war was to prevent a communalist takeover of America until the puniness of the Vietcong laid made that takeover ridiculous. Then the nation elected Richard Nixon president. Nixon isolated the protestors from the government that embraced them in the 1950s. The boomers found that their third-grade teachers had misled them if Richard Nixon was the system's choice. They were now the enemy of the society that promised them a better life than their parents did. With the caskets of friends coming home, they saw little difference between the world prior to the 1950s and the one they faced.
In 1973 the war ended, but the media impact continued. The hero in the media was now the anti-hero who exposed the system's flaws. The negative thrust of the media kept the cultural change movements going. American did not return to 1946, it was 1975, now. America could not go back. The war left the stage and the cultural issues of other movements took the center.
Before moving forward in time, it should be pointed out that the normal view taken of the 1960s assumes that all of America walked in the same shoes and marched together toward the common goal. This has never been true of America, and certainly was not true of the 1960s. While the media led the way, the mass of American youth only followed slowly. The best evidence for this is that by the time most became aware of the hippie movement in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco, the movement had moved on. Most people who enjoyed Woodstock watched the film and were not there. The values of the movement were taken on in pieces. Kids in Wisconsin might embrace granny glasses as they showed up on store shelves, but they were not the innovators of granny glasses and they embraced them as “cool” not as political directives.
The focus shifted toward those issues that represented freedom to the former movement participants. Among the goals were prosperity for the American people, environmental preservation and improvement, sexual freedom, verbal freedom, non-industrial education with a focus on the person not the resulting worker, an end to the corporate dominance of lifestyles and politics, and freedom from religious dogma. The cultural battleground was set.
The leading force was the media. With the morality older codes gone, movies and television championed pushing the envelope. Shows sought to go just a little further than before in the name of that being what people wanted and what was necessary. To push was the goal. Attempts to limit this were easily discredited by media. The labeling of television and movies only meant that parents had a code to look at if they wanted to. The pushing went ahead.
Of course, through all of this there was opposition. The “silent majority” of Richard Nixon was an early anti-change movement. The more Christian-oriented movements of the 1980s and 1990s did better. They actually had a real world existence with people in positions to do something.
This brings us to today’s postmodern issues. The focus on the body and personal freedoms remains an important part of this fight. The body is the heart of morality. That is what this has all been about. Can government limit the freedom of individuals where their bodies were concerned? After that the issues mush outward to the ethnic and racial group’s position in society. They bring a group focus to freedom and prosperity.
The main recent issues involve gay/lesbian rights and marriage, abortion, bilingual education, multiculturalism, political correctness, and decency. Associated with them are corporate issues of privacy, product safety, and pollution.
Figure 1: Civil Unions/Gay Marriage [Election Committee of County the of Orange 2005]
The above map [Figure 1] shows the diversity of official government action on the issue of gay marriage. There is variety in the responses of the states, but a division is clearly present. Some want some recognition, others none. Depending on the wording of the question and whether constitutional issues were involved, surveys have shown Americans divided into groups of 50-50 or 66-34 over the issue of gay marriage and its various manifestations in law and policy [Polling Report, Civil Union]. This indicates a severe divide exists on this issue.
The issue of abortion also divides the country. Surveys find a 35/40/23 percent divide between those wanting abortions generally available, available with stricter limits, and not permitted [Polling Report, Law]. This has been the most deeply and consistently public issue of the last three decades. An acceptable solution seems unattainable given the depth of feeling people hold on this issue. The heat of the issue is moderated through the general blaming of the courts for Roe vs Wade in that groups look at the courts as the source of the problem, yet the numbers indicate the courts have acted in an area over which compromise by the general population would be tough.
Figure 2: Leading Church Bodies by County 2000 [Kilpinen]
Issues such as abortion are also impacted by the regional variation in the strength of local churches. Figure 2 shows that the major churches found in each county have a regional pattern. There is little intermixing of the faiths and their stands on the various issues. This is especially important given the liberal versus conservative nature of some of the leading churches. Division in America runs very deep.
Figure 3: Percent change in the nonmetro Hispanic population 1990-2003. Economic Research Service]
Issues also involve ethnic tension, often over cultural values and discrimination. Just selecting one measure, Figure 3 shows the increase in the non-metropolitan Hispanic population. Note how much of the United States is covered in the darker colors indicating significant change. The size of the change is not as important as the perceived rate of change. People sense troubles. If people see new immigrants and ethnic groups as threatening, then a large scale change like this indicates trouble.
The Obama period has certainly continued the "culture wars." First, the continuing victory of leftward leaning elements of the Democratic Party has pushed conservative tolerance to the breaking point, even to spiriting the Republican Part between those favoring Big Government and those who do not.. The gridlock is actually the refusal of conservatives to accept the Marxist thrust of policy under Obama. Take note of the ideological basis of gridlock and the propaganda like attacks on ideology by the left. They, of course, have a much deeper grasp on ideology in the form of Marxism, but they and the media keep that word from being heard and the nature of the views as ideology are hidden in their acceptability as good, progressive things. The drumbeat of how wonderful collectivism is is a sure sign of Left Wing Marxism, yet the Marxist term is hidden due to its 1960s negative aura.
Second, the burst of racial tension related to the Marxist push has brought America to the edge of tension unseen since the 1960s. While many have thought racial tension was a thing of the past, especially given the election of Obama, the playing of the race card so often has brought those relations back to the times of Martin Luther King. Progress has been eliminated. This is a side issue in the have versus have-nots wars, which is Marxist in nature, and a “Culture War.” Does American want the individualistic society of Europe’s political past, or the collectivism of Africa’s political past?
America has always been a place of internal disputes. While priding itself in its internal unity, that unity has always been incomplete. Currently America is seriously divided by a “Culture War”. People are seriously divided over how the society is to control aspects of human life. These issues show little indication of being resolved or going away.
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Answersplease.com. 2005. “Salem witch trials.” http://www.answers.com/topic/salem-witch-trials.
Buchanan, Patrick J. 1992. “1992 Republican National Convention Speech in Houston, Texas”, http://www.buchanan.org/pa-92-0817-rnc.html.
Economic Research Service. 2003. Percentage change in the nonmetro Hispanic population 1990-2000. United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/RaceAndEthnic/HispanicMap.htm
Election Committee of the County of Orange. 2005. “Civil Union/Gay Marriage”. Map. http://www.eccopac.org/Laws/LawsFrameSet.html?=LawsMarriage.html
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_____. 2005. “Abortion and Birth Control. http://www.pollingreport.com/abortion.htm.
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